The Heretic – Snippet 23

Part Two: The Powder


Bruneberg had not begun as a settlement, much less a town.  It started as a scattering of unrelated clumps of families, a congregation of tribal settlements that had congealed in the area of the first cataract of the River, the cataract nearest the broad plain into which the River spilled itself after a thousand league journey down its self-carved valley from the glacial drip of the Schnee mountains.  The Schnee were invisible mountains from Bruneberg.  They were over the horizon of northeast or, as all the Land referred to that cardinal direction: up-River.

The Collapse here was quite literal, Center explained. The River cuts through the alluvial remnants of an ancient mountain chain in this area and, as a result, the Valley constricts to a few leagues across.  Duisberg’s original settlers found it a good place to build a dam to compound water for irrigation and recreational purposes.  It burst, and the rocks of the cataracts are the remains of its duracrete masonry.

But a dam doesn’t need nishterlaub technology to stay in place, Abel thought. We have dams all over the place today.

A good example of why the Galactic Collapse was so complete and all-obliterating, Center replied.  If the Duisberg colonists had built their dam of rebar and concrete, it would still be here to this day.  Instead, they relied on exotic molecular configurations held in place by molecule-by-molecule algorithmic maintenance.

So they built a dam that could be infected by the Plague, did they? Raj’s rough and bitter laugh echoed in Abel’s mind. The wonder isn’t that the Empire of Man fell to ruin, but that it lasted as long as it did. It’s as if we built a Death Wish into the very ground beneath our feet.

Abel reined his traveling dont, a huge stag named Spet, through the southern gate of the town. At seventeen, he was grown to what he imagined would be his full height now (and he over-topped his father by half a head), and had begun to fill out with the wiry, desert-bred muscles created by many hundreds of Scout patrols and expeditions.  Even two years before he would not have chosen, or been allowed, to ride such a beast as Spet, a herd alpha if ever there were one. The dont would have simply been too big for him and impossible to control.

Now Abel sat the saddle easily and the dont responded smoothly to the rein. Spet, he’d discovered on the fourteen day journey up-river, was a sensible creature, if not the most intelligent dont Abel had ever encountered.  It had taken a day and a night for dont and rider to become used to one another, but a special evening meal of blood-soak, barley marinated in the purple-brown blood of a local herbidak, had cemented the bond between them.

An interesting hemoglobin-hemocyanin mix in the Duisberg fauna, Center intoned. Probably due to selective pressure brought about by geologically recent planetary volcanism. Hemocyanin is not susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning as is hemoglobin.

As usual, Abel had let Center rattle on, knowing that any comment of his might lead to another lengthy disquisition.

Abel was more concerned with the dont.  He had rightly assumed that Spet, who had conquered all dontflesh he’d ever surveyed, was done with the challenge and dominance rituals most dont stags spent half their lives and all of their free time engaging in — or was simply beyond such pettiness — and his thoughts were those of a fledge-dont again, concerned with a good meal, comfortable bedding, taking on his allotted burden for the expected period of toil, no less, and most definitely no more.

Upon first smelling the proffered blood-soak, the feathers of Spet’s flank crest had flared in happy surprise, and the dont had snorted with delight when Abel refilled his feed basket with a second helping.

Bruneberg was sprawled down both sides of the River up and down the first cataract. Its original reason for being had been as a portage stop and watering hole for transports coming down or being rowed, sailed, or pulled back up-River by dak towline. It was a fortunate fact — the Hand of Zentrum, said the priest — that the prevailing wind in the Land was always off the Braun Sea and up-River.

After fighting for a century of more, the local tribes had finally joined together to form the town with a sentiment less of civic pride than pure exhaustion with feuding, and it showed in the architectural design, or lack thereof. Even Abel, who didn’t much care, thought the town an ugly place.

Yet there was a bustle, an air of liveliness and even danger, present in the jumble of stone and wattle edifices that did impress him.  Every alley seemed to be crowded with the stalls of merchants, vendors, auctioneers, and hawkers.  Groups of men threw the bones openly in the shadow of dusty stoops, betting on the marks. Women lounged at corners and some offered the promise of more than just a flash of breast curve and ankle — for the right price.

Money itself was everywhere in the form of palm-sized clay promissory notes etched with quantities along with one or two glyph simple terms of sale. These were known as barter chits.  When discharged, the chits were broken into shards and scattered for luck.  For this reason, the streets of Bruneberg were littered with the remains of deals made and unmade, lucre gained and spent.  You might very well gash your feet on the stuff if you weren’t wearing a good pair of sandals or didn’t have tough footsoles to tread upon it.

The whole town smelled of dak shit.  Nobody cleaned the streets — the concept probably hadn’t even occurred to most of the citizens — and to do so would have been near impossible, in any case. The droppings mixed with the clay barter-shards to produce a noxious slurry that defended itself with shit-coated barbs against all that was sanitary and sweet-smelling.

Riding beside Abel on a dont doe was a priest whom Abel had gotten to know fairly well over the past fourteen days ago.  His name was Raf Golitsin, and he was the chief priest at the gunsmith works of Treville, and, according to Joab, was considered a fast-rising protégé in Prelate Zilkovsky’s retinue.  Golitsin was in his late twenties and Zilkovsky trusted him enough to send him on this journey. In fact, Golitsin had confided his hope that this meant big things ahead for him at the temple, with a possible promotion to chief of staff in the near future — especially if they returned successful.  The old priest who currently held the position would be retiring soon.